Publication Inequality / Social Struggles - Social Movements / Organizing - City / Municipality / Region - Migration / Flight - Alternatives to Society - Commons / Social Infrastructure - Global Solidarity Migration and Global Solidarity in the City

How social justice, the right to freedom of movement and global social rights are interconnected



February 2020

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Berlin: Refugees Welcome
"Mobility must be recognized as an inalienable human right." (Charter of Palermo) CC BY-ND 2.0, Jeanne Menjoulet, via Flickr

In a world beset by rising global inequality, climate crisis, and wars, the global right to freedom of movement and settlement is one of the key issues around which a new internationalism and a new global solidarity must mobilize. The rapid growth of the “sanctuary cities” and “solidarity cities” movements in Europe and the Americas means that there are now concrete locations—in urban space—where the demand for global social rights can be articulated. While the leaders of EU member states and the USA press ahead with restrictions on immigration and close their borders, and in the process accept the deaths of thousands seeking safety along migration routes as collateral damage, more and more local governments and administrations, alongside movements within civil society, are declaring the cities under their authority “sanctuary cities” or “solidarity cities”. All of these actors are striving to implement inclusive immigration policies, prevent the deportation of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected, ensure that those with precarious residency status can have more secure futures, and expand social and political rights for all city residents irrespective of their nationality. In addition, many of these cities are also making efforts towards a more general democratization of city life.

In Europe, solidarity cities are evidence of the growing importance of political alliances at the city level in the fight against Europe’s overall swing to the right and the tightening of European border and immigration policies. Alongside the isolationist policies that are playing out in the Mediterranean, and issues to do with national citizenship and foreign resident status, the policies of individual cities and local councils are also key in determining the living conditions of migrants in the EU. In order to develop an effective left-wing strategy to address the issue of immigration, it is therefore of central importance to critically engage with the various forms of inter-city networking as they currently exist. Above all, the key issue is how local political measures can be developed that are able to circumvent or even counteract national and European immigration controls and mechanisms of exclusion, at least at a local government level.

Beyond Borders

On closer inspection, what initially appear to be two totally distinct issues—EU border policy and social rights in the context of the city—turn out to be intimately connected. Solidarity cities are experimenting with new ways of decoupling access to rights and resources from nationality and citizenship. The city governments of New York, San Francisco, Barcelona, and Zurich, for example, have introduced council IDs, which are issued irrespective of a person’s residency status. These allow undocumented persons or those with precarious residency status to do things like rent an apartment, open a bank account, get a driver’s license, or make use of educational and medical services. By issuing such papers, these governments also (at least implicitly) support the struggle for open borders.

For an increasing number of people, the right to (global) freedom of movement and settlement that is being demanded by migrant-led movements and solidarity initiatives is the prerequisite for access to social rights. Nonetheless, it is yet to be categorized as one of the social rights in the narrower sense in which they are currently understood. The so-called right to unrestricted mobility, i.e. the freedom to choose one’s place of residence, belongs in spirit to the category of individual liberties, and thereby to the category of citizen’s rights. Article 13 of the General Declaration of Human Rights states that  “(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state,” and “2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his or her own, and to return to his or her own country”. The Charter of Human Rights thus recognizes the right to emigrate but not the right to immigrate.

This legal loophole is a divisive issue among the (academic) left. Writers with a global perspective on inequality research or political philosophy see a combined right to both global freedom of movement and settlement as one of the most important prerequisites for access to many other (social) rights and thereby the broader aim of global social justice. According to political scientist Joseph Carens, possessing the citizenship of an affluent nation in a context in which the mobility of the majority of people worldwide is heavily restricted is akin to feudal class privilege, because opportunity is so unequally distributed based on citizenship. Carens goes on to say that anyone properly committed to the idea of individual freedom must also accept a general right to international freedom of movement.

Sociologist Stephan Lessenich even designates the “politics with a visa” practiced in the northern hemisphere (especially by the EU and the USA) and the concomitant “global mobility divide” as fundamental to the “society of externalization”. Thus the “imperial way of life” and privileges of the global north are maintained at the expense of those living in the global south:

In this context, opportunities for mobility are a monopolized resource which is made use of by some and denied to others. The physical regulation of movement—some are mobile, while others are demobilized—is a crucial element of the Western way of life.

In contrast, the movements and networks behind solidarity cities effectively recognize the right to global freedom of movement and settlement, and try to implement global social rights in local political contexts. A particularly clear example of this is the “Palermo Charter”, created by Mayor Leoluca Orlando in 2015, which many other solidarity cities in Europe have since used as a basis. In the charter, Orlando explicitly calls for the abolition of residence permits, for social and civil rights to be connected to a person’s place of residence, and the unconditional guaranteeing of the (human) right to global freedom of movement and settlement.

The Politics of Urban Citizenship

In the Anglophone debates around this topic, policies which tie citizenship to an individual’s city of residence are termed urban citizenship. People speak of city-based or regional forms of citizenship when local political instruments are introduced which guarantee or expand social participation not only for those with state-issued citizenship, but also city inhabitants who possess no formal citizenship status or are unable to make use of it due to their marginalized social position.

Unlike in the debates taking place in German-language contexts, the concept of urban citizenship makes it possible to contemplate the issue of immigration without having to plod through the discourses around cultural difference, such as those around the desire to integrate, “ethnic attributes”, or the supposed development of parallel societies. Instead, the focus here is on the tension between belonging to a political community and the possibilities of broader societal participation that go along with it. This pertains not only to immigrants, even if in many cases they are indeed excluded from (formal) citizenship, but rather all people socially marginalized by processes of neoliberalization that have in effect curtailed both their social and their civil rights.

City-based citizenship is therefore about much more than preventing deportations. Additionally, it also seeks to strengthen social rights and societal participation in their various dimensions: this includes social rights to healthcare, education, accommodation, and work, but also cultural and gender-specific rights. Contrary to the often-heard reservation that fundamental changes in these areas can only take place on a national level, there is in fact significant scope for action at state and council levels, at least when activists, local politicians, and council administrations co-operate with one another.

Evidence of this can be found in the area of healthcare policy. Although there is almost nothing as tightly regulated as access to public healthcare, groups have succeeded in providing medical care to those not covered by mandatory health insurance via alternative public programmes in a number of German federal states. Once again, this can benefit not only migrants without a settled residency status but also many others who have been forced outside the standard care framework as a result of their social marginalization. In Berlin, for example, a yearly fund of €1.5 million was to be made available from autumn 2018 to cover treatment accessed using an anonymized Krankenschein (confirmation of medical insurance coverage). The idea is that individuals are able to obtain these documents via a non-state advisory service without having to disclose their identity or legal status. Such programmes are far from perfect, however, and the anonymized Krankenschein system in Berlin is far from being fully realized. Currently, all that exists is a clearing centre where those in precarious living situations who lack health insurance can apply for medical treatment on an individual basis, but which is seldom visited by those who might make use of it. Nevertheless, such programmes are representative of the idea that it is the task of society as a whole to protect and publicly fund access to healthcare. 

Four Dimensions of Local Governmental Intervention

The movements behind and alliances between solidarity cities in Europe and sanctuary cities in the Americas are politically very heterogenous, pursue a variety of different interests, and give rise to a diverse range of expectations from other political actors; in other words, there is no universal definition of what constitutes a city of solidarity or sanctuary. Nonetheless, there are four dimensions that can be distinguished among the ways in which local governments intervene in the realm of immigration politics. Firstly, the protection of irregular migrants and rejected asylum seekers against criminal prosecution and deportation. This is common hallmark of the more than 500 North American cities, districts, and federal states currently affiliated with the sanctuary city movement.

The second dimension is that of interventions on human rights grounds. In 2018, people active in the international sea rescue movement founded the “Seebrücke” initiative in response to the temporary de facto closure of Italian ports to civil sea rescue organizations. Seebrücke activists called on local governments in Germany to directly admit refugees rescued at sea; to date, they have convinced 124 cities, administrative districts, and municipalities in Germany to comply and declare themselves “safe harbours”. Similarly, for the mayors of European cities such as Berlin, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Bonn, Barcelona, Palermo, and Naples, who in summer 2018 publicly expressed a willingness to directly take refugees arriving by boat into their cities, their actions are also primarily about intervening in the humanitarian crisis that is produced by Europe’s border and asylum regime.

The third aspect concerns policies of city-based citizenship. By experimenting with different ways of strengthening urban citizenship—such as council-issued IDs or anonymized healthcare cards—city governments, authorities, and civic institutions are attempting to provide for global social rights on a local government level, thus decoupling their provision from an inhabitant’s residency status or nationality

The fourth and final dimension is the “right to the city”. The Solidarity City activist network is a coalition of social movements, refugee councils, anti-deportation initiatives, and pro-migrant NGOs spread across 17 German and Swiss cities. The network demands a fundamental democratization of city life, one in which cities are more participatory, socially just, and centred around solidarity—for all their inhabitants. While neoliberal actors like those seen at the yearly World Economic Forum in Davos underscore the economic benefits that urban policies of diversity and inclusion may provide, left-wing activists see solidarity cities as a “space for progressive politics in Europe”.

For all their differences, the actors, coalitions, and networks involved in solidarity cities and sanctuary cities all articulate a deep political dissent with the intensification of restrictive and exclusionary migration policies on a national and regional level. This is the source of their political relevance and potential power, but also where they reach their limits. Therefore, the long-term goal must go beyond resituating the issue of social rights at the level of local government and thereby creating a regulatory mishmash in the process. Although the localized recognition of the right to global freedom of movement and settlement has a strongly symbolic quality to it, it will not produce positive outcomes for the majority of refugees as long as national and regional governments—as in the case of the blockade of sea rescue organizations in the Mediterranean—continue to press on with their isolationist policies.

In order for global freedom of movement to become a recognized human right and for global social rights to be secured beyond the confines of a series of discrete urban spaces, new or strengthened alliances are necessary on both a national and regional level, with potential allies including civil society actors engaged in the area of development, open-minded governmental administrations, and progressive politicians. A growing number of politicians and activists involved in city-based alliances have come to understand that struggles around migration and policies of city-based citizenship serve not a narrow group of people but in fact the communal interest of a range of (supposedly) different groups—in other words, social justice. As we can see, the linking of the demand for the right to freedom of movement with global social rights in the context of the city has already opened up the possibility of countering the neoliberal and far-right global elites with a response founded on solidarity.

Translated by Ryan Eyers & Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective